Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Terry Zwigoff

'Ghost' Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

July 19, 2001—It's a shame. Instead of meeting him in person, I had to talk to Terry Zwigoff by phone about his new movie Ghost World, even though he lives right here in The City. He was stuck in Los Angeles putting the final touches on his outstanding new film.

"It's hell down here. I just hate it," he moans, sounding quite a lot like the subject of his last film, the brilliant documentary Crumb about cartoonist Robert Crumb. "San Francisco is one of the last livable cities. But there's no work up there at all. And every meeting I get with some producer or actor, I gotta fly down to Burbank. It's very hard to live in America," he goes on. "They're eliminating the middle class. Boy, they pay a lot of money here. Some offers... it's tempting."

Fifty-three year old Zwigoff made his first movie back in 1985, a fine documentary called Louie Bluie, about old-time blues musician Howard Armstrong. It took ten years for his follow up, the masterful Crumb, which made more critics' top ten lists than any other movie in 1995.

Now comes the new fiction film Ghost World, starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, a strong contender for this year's best American movie. Following the relationship of two teenage girls, Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) in the summer after high school graduation and before real life, it reveals the same Zwigoff behind the documentaries, a man who loves old music and comic books, and watches the world with a wary, cynical eye.

Following Crumb, Zwigoff hoped to make a feature film right away. "I kept getting all these scripts and they were so bad," he says. His wife was working for San Francisco's Last Gasp comics at the time and brought home stacks of comic books, including Ghost World, which Zwigoff greatly admired. She kept pushing Zwigoff to make a movie out of it. So he met with Berkeley's Daniel Clowes, and the pair agreed to write the screenplay together. The comic book was episodic and not really plot-driven, so a few changes had to be made. "I realized all the stuff I was adding was all me. I said, 'Dan, this is a little too retarded.' Dan was more disciplined, and not too caught up in my own fetishizing." Clowes urged Zwigoff to go with his original instincts.

Eventually, Zwigoff's additions stayed in the screenplay and made it to the filming stage. The Seymour character, who doesn't really appear in the comic book, became a kind of on-screen amalgamation of Zwigoff himself. One scene where Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi) blows up at a large family slowly crossing the street in front of his car, came from Zwigoff's own life. Seymour shouts, "Have some more kids, why don't you!" "I really said that," Zwigoff admits.

"We pitched this movie to every studio in town and got turned down by everyone," he continues. "MGM came in at the very end, largely thanks to the producer Lianne Halfon. I went to her with this idea, cause she's an old friend and partners with John Malkovich (their company is called Mr. Mudd)." Through MGM, United Artists joined forces with Mr. Mudd and Granada Film to produce and distribute Ghost World.

"I came to the point where Granada was very angry that I wasn't listening to their notes. I can't second-guess what the audience is gong to like. They're happy now that the good reviews have been coming in," Zwigoff says.

Zwigoff admits he was nervous going into his third film and directing actors for the first time. "This film dragged on for five years before it happened. I sort of panicked. I didn't know anything about acting. When I see films, I'm interested in characters, whether it's The King of Comedy, or The Asphalt Jungle, or Scarlet Street.

How did Zwigoff solve his dilemma? "I went to a bunch of acting workshops. Every actor I worked with responded to completely different methods. You have to make them feel comfortable and respond to each other, but [especially] when they're actually engaged with each other. I gotta say, Steve Buscemi was about 95 percent there when he arrived. I didn't have to give him too much direction. I was holding out and holding out until I got Steve Buscemi. He's such an underrated actor. I worked a long time with Thora, 'cause she just wanted to play it a different way. Any little adjustment you gave her, she would immediately incorporate it into her performance."

"That woman who plays Steve's mother (Anna Berger), I cast her right away," Zwigoff boasts. "I wanted someone who was just like my mother. She's in Crimes and Misdemeanors. That movie came on TV the other night and my wife called to me, 'it's Seymour's mother in Crimes and Misdemeanors!" Zwigoff sighs again. "You see a film like that and you just want to get a job washing cars."

Though the concept of directing actors was different in Ghost World, Zwigoff's love for and use of music is not. Zwigoff used a series of great old blues tunes for the film's soundtrack, though the studio originally wanted a marketable soundtrack album full of N'Sync and Britney Spears tunes. Zwigoff did find a use for one Spears song, in a 50s diner where Enid and Rebecca ironically comment on the lack of 1950s music playing there. "We wanted to put in 'Whoops I Did It Again,' and they wanted a million bucks for it, so we had to change it."

In addition, Buscemi's character Seymour is an obsessive, reclusive record collector who loves old blues and old 78 RPM records. He even has a record cabinet exactly like the one Robert Crumb has in Crumb. "I have the same one," Zwigoff says. "I had a third one built just because mine weighs a couple of tons. But it's my personal collection in the movie. Seymour's room looks a lot like my room. I have a Felix the Cat. I like strong design, a lot of pop artifacts, whether they're in advertising or whatever."

In one of the movie's strongest moments, Thora Birch's character Enid goes through Seymour's collection and finds an advertisement for a restaurant called Coon Chicken, complete with a horrible old African American stereotype ad campaign. She uses it as a found art object for her art class and causes a controversy. "Coon chicken was a real place," Zwigoff says, to my astonishment. "I collect a lot of black memorabilia along with my blues records. I had a friend, David Salmonowitz, who had the world's best black collection. Unbelievable. Some are disturbingly racist. I found the 'Coon Chicken' ad years ago."

Another bit of found art that graces the movie is its amazingly strong opening musical number, a video of a wild, thrashing, sweating rock 'n' roll slam cobbled from an 1965 Bollywood film called Gumnaam ("the unnamed"). "It's a really crazy film," Zwigoff says. "Dan collects all this stuff... underground audio tapes of the Jerky Boys, celebrities caught off guard and swearing. He had about 30 seconds of this thing. He was speeding though this tape for something else to show me, and I said 'wait... what is that?' That's how I worked. I'd just find these little details. We tracked down the film in Bombay; the producer was dead but his sons were alive and they were so proud that they flew the negative out to us. So we got a nice clean copy to use."

Zwigoff admits that Ghost World was not his first attempt at a fiction screenplay. His first attempt came years ago and was co-written by none other than R. Crumb. "The Mitchell brothers commissioned us to edit this documentary about Hunter S. Thompson." According to Zwigoff, the Mitchells had filmed Thompson speaking at a university campus but didn't record any sound. "You can't just dub grunts and groans in there," Zwigoff says.

"Afterwards, they commissioned us to write a script, make a good porno film. We got into it for six months and then we decided we didn't want to make it into a porno movie, we needed good actors. Crumb really got into it -- he wrote pages and pages about some woman's leg. We never got it made, thank God."

Though Crumb was the most highly acclaimed film of 1995, Zwigoff is still mad about his famous Oscar snub. "I was trying to get Sony Pictures to at least step up and complain. And they didn't want to offend the Academy." Nevertheless, he was able to attend the ceremony, and found it horrifying. "They make it look so glamorous on TV, but it's really awful," he says. There was no one he was interested in meeting except for actor James Cromwell, "mainly because of his progressive politics," and comedian Don Rickles. "I saw Don Rickles and I came running up and shaking his hand and I was hoping he would insult me. But he didn't," Zwigoff sighs.

Now that Ghost World is here, we can all rejoice. It's a sign that great things can still come from a cowardly and corrupt studio system. "There's so much crap out there," Zwigoff says. "You get to the point where you think even I can do better than this. At least I have a point of view and something to say."

Though it's about teenagers just out of high school, it's one of the few films out there with adult concerns. "It's a dilemma I can relate to: what am I gonna be what I grow up? I don't want to be what my father did. Worked in clothing stores. Worked his way up through the trenches, selling shoes like in a K-Mart, to a higher end men's shoe shop downtown. I didn't want to do that. It's what all my films are about, the risks and rewards of being an artist. Going your own way and not conforming."

"I can't like what other people like," he continues. "I can't hang out at a sports bar then go watch Shakespeare in Love and play volleyball. I like to hide in my room and listen to Blind Lemmon Jefferson records."

Partial Terry Zwigoff Filmography:
Louie Bluie (1985)
Crumb (1994)
Ghost World (2001)
Bad Santa (2003)
Art School Confidential (2006)

CD Universe
Movies Unlimtied